The four soaring stainless steel fermenters at Five Boroughs Brewing Co. prep the beers that will be poured at the taproom next door, where local folks gather to play board games and enjoy a brew or three.
Five Boroughs — whose craft beers now flow through bar taps and stock fridges across, well, all five boroughs — is a far cry from Tomnitz’s first attempts to brew in college. “We were actually doing it on our dorm room kitchen stoves. Very, very rudimentary. The chilling process of the beer was us duct taping the sink,” recalls the now 30-year-old cofounder and CEO of Five Boroughs, who was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list last year. Leaving the beer to ferment in closets also created an unkind odor throughout the hallways. “My roommate Ryan and I had to go before a disciplinary board. They didn’t really budge, even though it was legal federally, and we were of age.”
Neither were Tomnitz’s parents thrilled with their son’s obsession. “Needless to say, when my parents showed up to move me out of my dorm room for graduation, my dad was really questioning what I was doing at that time. He was not happy at all,” Tomnitz says with a laugh. “He’s way more accepting now.”
Post-college, Tomnitz kept brewing on the weekends but took a job as an investment banking analyst. Still, some corner of his brain was always preparing for his own business in beer.
“Digging into a lot of the companies that we represented at a base level, [I was] understanding cash flow, understanding how to evaluate a business, understanding how accounting works,” he says. “I was always fascinated by doing something on my own and building something from the ground up.”
In preparation for creating his own business, he learned about the New York City beer scene by visiting bars and breweries and asking directly to speak with owners, many of whom he stills works and socializes with now as a member of New York’s local brewers guild.
One day, he and his future cofounder, Kevin O’Donnell, then his banking colleague, laid their eyes on an inspiring scene at a Bronx bar.
“We had never in our life seen such a diverse group of individuals all gathering around beer. You could tell that they cared about local breweries, they cared about fresh beer, and it was just really homey,” he says of glimpsing that special happy hour. “It further solidified our belief that beer is for everyone and reaffirmed our mission to create a culture in which everyone could feel welcome.”
They instantly knew what they wanted to create: a beer that represented all five boroughs of one of the most diverse cities in the world — and a space to drink it.
“The primary goal for us was to become the quintessential New York City brewery by creating a brand that all New Yorkers could feel a part of,” he says. “It didn’t matter if you’ve lived here your entire life, it didn’t matter if you’ve just moved here, it didn’t matter if you are tourists, if it’s your first craft beer or your 1,000th craft beer.”
It was a bold goal — and it was often received thusly. “I mean, that’s an audacious concept!” Tomnitz says now. “It’s representing New York City, and so for us, it wasn’t necessarily pushback, but like, ‘Wow, y’all got some work to do.’”
His colleagues in finance were surprised that he was willing to leave his comfortable job in 2015 for this dream. But the real battles lay with the city he was setting out to represent: the bar owners whom he had to pitch to stock his beer and the government agencies that would allow him to build the brewery he was envisioning.
Blake Tomnitz in the Five Boroughs Brewing facility.
“It took a lot of pounding the pavement, getting people to try our product, but I think that was so important because we got such great feedback. People in New York are not going to BS you about what the quality is,” he says of letting bar owners and fellow brewers try the product.
They launched the brand with a traditional IPA, a crisp pilsner, a tart gose and a hoppy lager. “We wanted to develop a wide variety of different beers to show as many different palates across New York City as possible. The first goal was to develop a selection of year-round beers where there would be at least one that you would like.”
As for the construction of a giant facility and accompanying taproom in Brooklyn, “It was about six months of demolition work, about a year’s worth of construction and about six months of scaling up all the beer recipes to the main production system,” he says. And Tomnitz and O’Donnell were blocked by bureaucracy, whether about building codes or liquor laws, at every step of the way.
The pair taught themselves everything via textbooks, online videos and endless conversations with varied experts who had been through it themselves. “Kevin and I had to pretty much go camp out at the Brooklyn Department of Buildings for two days just to get something approved. Starting a business in New York City is very hard. Starting a manufacturing business is extremely hard, and starting an alcohol manufacturing business is impossible.”
Nearly. And yet in 2017, Five Boroughs opened to the public.
The process may have brought plenty of toil, but beer remains a celebratory beverage, and when looking back at his journey, Tomnitz points to two parties as the instances when he finally felt he’d successfully brought his idea to life.
The first was an internal party circa 2015, a beer tasting at a cheese shop for family and friends. At that point, Tomnitz and O’Donnell weren’t licensed to sell and were months from buying their own space, but they wanted their inner circles to taste test the product to see if they were on the right track.
“That was the first time we presented ourselves as Five Boroughs. And to see people enjoy the beers — it was like, ‘Wow, we’ve got something here,’” he says. “It’s obviously doing what I feel the intention of beer is to do, which is to bring people together. That was the first time where I was like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”
The second was an external party, which accompanied the opening of the brewery to the public in August 2017. “There were significant delays in terms of city permitting, waiting on federal regulatory approval, state regulatory approval. You just never know what’s going to come your way, so we waited until probably the last minute until we got that final-final-final-final signoff,” Tomnitz says of announcing the big opening. “But 500 people showed up — it wasn’t just family and friends; there was significant interest not only from Brooklyn but New York City and beyond.”
A room packed with all kinds of people from all five boroughs, hanging out and sipping his creations? His vision was realized.
Credit: Ivan Clow/Forbes; Bernard Osei/Forbes